2. Becoming an Artist
Of course it's one thing to be an artist and to want to communicate with pictures, but quite another to follow through on that commitment. That's what this lesson is about, before we actually begin learning to see. Becoming an artist is about that moment you realized the urge to scribble and make pictures was not going to leave you alone. When you decided to stop looking at pictures and begin making them yourself. When you began to go to bed later and later because you couldn't put your brushes away. When you began to dream of your next drawing. Becoming an artist is a hugely transformative decision, which most of you have already made. It removes you from the common flow of humanity, gives you a reason to live, a sense of completeness and a desire to improve. Suddenly you begin to think about what you look at. I suspect you are now so used to it, you have forgotten how rare this way of looking at the world really is. But it is different from just looking at something and knowing it is there. A cat crawls into your field of vision.
My late cat Picasso
Before you start sneezing uncontrollably and burst into hives, you note its geometry, the black glossiness of its fur against the blacker darkness of its shadow, the way its rear leg sticks out like a coathook, and how it looks at you like it wants to say something but knows you wouldn't understand anyway. And you start to think, "I need a cat just like that in the corner of my latest picture," as you rummage through your purse or pockets, not for an antihistamine like any other sane person trying to save her life, but for your pencil and sketchbook.
Becoming alert to the visual qualities of the things you look at is the first stage in becoming an artist. Before we can talk about light and shadow, color and volume, we have to train our eyes to see and our minds to think about what we see. Seeing takes time and thought and above all, practice. Seeing is a kind of meditation, a way of connecting the outer world to your inner world.
To paraphrase a Chinese expression, "You look at a mountain and see it is a mountain. Then you look at a mountain and see it is not a mountain. Finally you look at a mountain and see you are the mountain." Very Zen. There are many ways to look at something and because the mind of an artist is nimble and alive, it sees what others can't. I live close to the San Gabriel mountains in California. Most of the time I can see them hovering there, but if I take my time I note their jaggedness, their color filtered by the air and the sunlight gleaming through the LA smog, their slopes smudged by clouds, and how they are not the same mountains that I saw yesterday, but a brand new arrangement of forms and textures and hue. I've looked at them so often, in so many conditions, that they have become a part of me, a piece of my internal world, a feature in my dreams, a symbol of my determination to finish this painting in front of me. I am transformed by what I see, because I think about it as an artist.
So we come to the second most important secret about art I can share: the way you think about what you see will transform you.
Yes, that's me with a papercut
In fact, I never wanted to be an artist when I was a child. My father was an artist and who wants to do what her father does for a living? So uncool. When I was eight what I really wanted was to be Mao Zedong. You know, the Great Chairman. Gets to review the May Day parades. Waves to the People. Lifts millions out of poverty. I was always a hard-working student, proud of my high efforts, and I thought the pursuit of excellence would naturally lead straight to the top. When I was old enough to understand that politics was often ugly, miserable work, I decided I wanted to be a great writer or a poet, or a teacher or actor. Then the Cultural Revolution happened and I saw what became of writers and poets, and teachers and actors. I was twelve when the schools closed and discovered I could be anything I wanted ... as long as it was a farmer, a factory worker, or a soldier. So I joined the Navy.
As a nurse and one of my performances
At least in the Navy I could continue my education, and I began to study medicine, play basketball, and direct stage performances with titles like: "Ping Pong Diplomacy," and "The Children Do Laundry for Their Peoples Liberation Army Uncles."
But when the Cultural Revolution ended and universities reopened, there were no places for kids like me whose father was an outspoken artist, and who had relatives living overseas. My family background was suspect. There were political requirements and I definitely did not meet them. I was not permitted to apply to medical school. I was not allowed to apply to film school. I was too short for professional basketball.
With my father
All the doors were closed. There were no art courses in the Navy, so I asked my father how he became an artist. He told me, "You don't need to go to art school. I learned to paint while fighting the Japanese during the Second World War. I was on burial detail, and I felt as if I were burying my heart beside each of my fallen friends and comrades. I turned to art as a way to keep them alive." But I wasn't allowed to leave the naval compound: how could I study? He said, "that's the benefit of being an artist. You paint what you choose from the things around you. Just look for what calls out to you and draw it." So at the age of seventeen, I turned to art as a career and a way of life. Where my paths forward seemed blocked on all sides, by turning inward to my own vision I found myself in a landscape without paths, where I could roam as widely as I chose. I clung to art like a drowning woman, and it opened my eyes to what I might become.
I believe we can shape our fate, that our lives are the greatest work of art we will ever create, and that happiness and wisdom aren't found "out there" or brought to us by a lover or teacher or job or money. We create ourselves, fashion beauty out of dross, and make great art out of the stuff around us.
And it all begins by learning to see.
Ha ha ha! You just knew it was coming didn't you? They don't call me the "torture teacher" for nothing. If you are going to be my student, you will have to do the homework. So here it is:
I want you to write in the comments about the moment you became an artist. A paragraph at least, and more if it was a complicated decision like mine. Even those of you who aren't painters. I don't care what tools you use to create your art, you're a deviant and I want to know why. Let's call it roll call, meet'n'greet, getting to know you - all teachers like to know who their students are, it helps us become better teachers.
For those of you who are wondering: yes, this Journal is about attaining technical mastery of representational art. We'll start painting before too long, I promise, and I have a lots of professional secrets to share about how I achieve my results. I always thought technical mastery was the goal of an artistic education. How wrong can a person be? It turns out to be only the very first step on a long and fulfilling journey.
Until next time,